Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories. Emily Zentner The Sacramento Bee
Women who have experienced or seen sexual harassment in the Capitol are speaking out, but many fear the consequences of telling their stories. Emily Zentner The Sacramento Bee

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Capitol Alert

What are California taxpayers spending to settle sexual harassment claims? Good luck finding out

By Marjie Lundstrom

mlundstrom@sacbee.com

November 03, 2017 12:01 AM

THE PUBLIC EYETHE PUBLIC EYELeonard Johnson III came to the California Highway Patrol in December 2011 as a data processing manager, scoring 95 percent in his sexual harassment prevention training.

What happened over the next three months eventually cost the state more than $600,000 and abruptly ended the CHP career of a female office assistant.

According to CHP and court documents, Johnson admitted that he sat in the lap of an office worker, Carmyn Fields, repeatedly touched her hair and told her she could be his “work-wife.”

“Is my butt bony? I’ve been told my butt is bony,” Johnson allegedly said while wiggling and “grinding” on Fields’ lap in early 2012, according to her sexual harassment lawsuit and an interview with The Bee.

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Johnson later told internal investigators that he had sat in Fields’ lap but downplayed its significance by noting he had “jumped up real fast” after doing so, CHP documents from 2013 show. He wrote off much of his behavior to “joking around” and continued to touch Fields’ hair – he likened it to a Pantene commercial – even after a supervisor told him to stop, the documents state.

In January – five years after he cleared his harassment prevention training – the state paid out $600,000 to settle Fields’ lawsuit, plus $115,000 in worker’s compensation.

The legal case involving one of California’s premier law enforcement agencies reveals another dimension to the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the Capitol in recent weeks. Bolstered by the public repudiation of Hollywood film mogel Harvey Weinstein, women and some men who work inside California’s liberal Legislature have poured forth to describe a culture of harassment, discrimination and sexual assault that has permeated their workplace.

But accusations of outrageous office conduct resulting in large legal settlements are not limited to the Legislature.

A Bee examination of sexual harassment cases involving California state agencies and public universities shows that untold millions have been paid out in recent years to settle claims – without any centralized oversight of these settlements, or public accountability for the outcomes.

There’s a complete lack of accountability. These departments are allowed to act independently.

Mary-Alice Coleman, a Davis-based employment lawyer

In the last nine months alone, the University of California governing board agreed to pay more than $2.7 million to settle two claims at UC Santa Cruz and the UC Berkeley School of Law involving sexual assault and sexual harassment by faculty members.

How common are these payouts?

Representatives of California’s key financial and personnel agencies told The Bee they have no master list of sexual harassment settlements – and no easy way to get one –since each department is responsible for its own budgeting, including legal resolutions. The employment count within the executive branch of state government, which doesn’t include the Legislature or university systems, is 228,839 workers in 144 departments.

The attorney general’s office handles the legal work for many of these departments and would be a logical window on legal payouts. However, government regulations allow some of the state’s largest entities – the University of California, for instance, and the Department of Transportation – to rely on in-house counsel. State agencies also are allowed to request outside representation in legal matters, further muddying any central data collection.

This leaves California lawmakers and taxpayers pretty much in the dark about the overall cost of sexual harassment cases, or whether patterns and problems are emerging in certain agencies.

“There’s a complete lack of accountability,” said Mary-Alice Coleman, a Davis-based employment lawyer who frequently represents whistleblowers and other aggrieved workers in public institutions. “These departments are allowed to act independently.”

Coleman said many attorneys are reluctant to take on sexual harassment and discrimination cases involving state workers, knowing that the state has “unlimited resources to throw at litigation,” she said.

Fields’ settlement with CHP, and the allegations leading up to her 2014 lawsuit, received no publicity and might have gone unnoticed – but for the recent gush of attention on sexual harassment in Hollywood and at the state’s Capitol.

“You just don’t expect that these thing are ever going to happen to you,” said Fields, 53, a Granite Bay mother of two whose husband also had worked for the CHP.

“He (Johnson) never took no for an answer.”

Fields’ lawsuit alleges that Leonard Johnson III, 45, who still works for the state, also assaulted her at CHP headquarters in Sacramento by pulling her out of her chair and around an isolated corner of the office, holding her wrist, then pinning the 5-foot-3 woman against a wall and trying to kiss her.

Johnson said in an internal investigation that he had been alone with Fields that day in that area of the office, but he denied trying to kiss her, CHP documents show.

Johnson, who declined to speak with The Bee, was demoted by CHP in May 2013 and moved to the Franchise Tax Board in June 2014, state records show. He now works as an information systems analyst at the Department of Health Care Services, a non-supervisory position, and earns $7,242 a month.

Reached by The Bee Wednesday, Johnson expressed surprise that The Bee was publishing anything about the case. “You guys are putting my name in the paper?” he asked.

“I don’t even want to relive this,” he said, describing the experience as “very painful” for him and his family. He said he was “very embarrassed” and ended the conversation.

Unlike California, some states, including Michigan, meticulously track lawsuit judgments and settlements by department, and make that information available to lawmakers and the public.

“When you think about government and transparency, there’s no reason why this information shouldn’t be available. It’s taxpayers paying the costs of these lawsuits,” said Bill Bowerman, associate director of the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, which gathers the lawsuit figures.

Michigan began collecting lawsuit payout information from its departments in 1981, then made it a requirement in 1984. Bowerman said departments initially were “kicking at how much work it was to pull together,” but he noted that the annual report has been well received and used by the public for a variety of purposes.

Michigan’s lawsuit data reveals that the highest payouts since 1979, in judgments and settlements, came from the departments of education, transportation, treasury, corrections, state police and health and human services, in that order. Bowerman said that sexual harassment legal costs within Michigan state government are more commonly clumped in the corrections department and state police.

Earlier this year, the UC regents agreed to pay $1.7 million to settle a case involving the former UC Berkeley School of Law dean, Sujit Choudhry.

Choudhry’s former executive assistant, Tyann Sorrell, had accused her boss of inappropriately kissing, hugging and touching her. Sorrell and other critics complained that Choudhry was let off too easily by being allowed to remain a tenured faculty member, even though a campus investigation had substantiated the allegations.

The UC Board of Regents also settled a $1.15 million sexual assault case this year with a former UC Santa Cruz student, Luz Portillo. The woman alleged that university officials failed to adequately investigate her claims that her professor, Hector Perla, and another student employee had raped her in June 2015, the day before her graduation, according to media accounts of the case.

UC President Janet Napolitano vowed to improve the university’s handling of complaints related to sexual harassment and sexual violence. In 2016, UC adopted a systemwide model for how its campuses were to investigate and decide such cases, and “we’ve been working hard to implement it consistently and fairly...,” said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. More recently, she said, the university created systemwide procedures for investigating complaints against faculty and staff.

Klein said the university monitors legal settlements through multiple databases, on campuses and through the president’s office. Larger settlements are brought before the board of regents for approval, she said.

Ten months after CHP settled Carmyn Fields’ lawsuit, both she and her husband say they remain angry and disillusioned with their former employer.

Mark Fields, now 57, had joined the CHP at age 21 and retired as a lieutenant in 2011. During his tenure, he helped handle the CHP’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cases, which include sexual harassment. He also handled California Public Records Act requests which he has now used to obtain hundreds of pages of records for the couple to analyze.

The couple contends that CHP supervisors took little action, despite Carmyn’s many complaints, and that she later was repeatedly denied promotions.

CHP documents show that the department’s EEOC investigation into Carmyn’s allegations began on May 24, 2012, and was completed by Aug. 13, 2012 – but was kicked back by higher-ups because the investigation “contained errors, and was incomplete.” The department ultimately concluded that Johnson had violated department policies, but there was insufficient evidence that supervisors had failed to act or that Fields had been retaliated against, according to a Sept. 18, 2013, letter, signed by then CHP Deputy Commissioner R.C. Prieto.

CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader declined this week to discuss the case specifically, but said in a written statement that “the California Highway Patrol takes all allegations of misconduct by its employees, whether on or off duty, seriously.

“The Department thoroughly investigates each allegation, and takes swift and appropriate action, as necessary.”

The case continues to take a toll on the couple, who have been married for 28 years and have two grown children, they said. Both said they felt that Carmyn had been treated like a suspect, not a victim, and that fact-finding interviews by internal investigators were more like hostile interrogations.

“It wasn’t worth what our family went through,” said Mark Fields.

As part of the settlement, Carmyn was required to permanently sever her ties with the CHP in order to retire “in good standing.” She said she was forced to leave a job that she loved, compiling traffic fatality statistics.

She currently is not working. Her husband now commutes to Southern California as an associate dean at Mt. San Jacinto College in Riverside County.

After taxes and legal fees, she said, the settlement provides for about two years of lost pay. But she misses her job and the “many good people” who still work at the California Highway Patrol, she said.

“It was never about the money,” Carmyn Fields said. “I didn’t want to sue anybody, I didn’t want to do any of this.

“I just wanted them to acknowledge that this had happened. I was treated worse than the people they arrest.”

See some of the more than half a million #MeToo posts that have taken over Twitter

Women and men alike have taken to social media recently to post "#MeToo" to raise awareness for the number of victims of sexual harassment and assault. People were encouraged to tweet the hashtag if they had been victims of these themselves.

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom